icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle




The Witching Voice: A Novel from the Life of Robert Burns. Arnold Johnston. San Antonio: Wings Press. 2009.

I was sweetly captured by the language, the Scots of Robert Burns, from the first time I was exposed to it in high school Brit Lit. And it was language that first seized me when I began reading Arnie Johnston’s The Witching Voice, a novel that spans the years 1784-1788 in the life of the national poet of Scotland. There is the lovely treat of Burns’s own melodic words—not only the poetry, referred to often as songs by his compatriots and sung, too—but his everyday speech filled with metaphor and lilt. There is also Johnston’s skillful and rich use of the dialect—never skimping with it, but employing it in such a way that reading it was effortless–not always the case with dialect. And then there is the language of narration, itself often of surpassing beauty, as when Johnston writes about Burns’ mother wondering about her “eldest son’s feelings, for they seem to change like the shift of light and shadow on the braes when the wind drives the clouds before it.”

My knowledge of Burns did not grow much after my earliest exposure, yet I found myself often quoting “Oh wad some pow’r the Giftie gie us…” As a teen, I was naturally drawn to Rab Burns’ unmasking of hypocrisy. Brought up in a church closely related to the Kirk of Scotland, I was especially appreciative of his sharp humor when it came to the church. As Robert says, after being forced to be publicly chastised in the Kirk for fornication, “…there’s demands the Kirk needna mak on any o’ us—demands that ha’e less to do wi’ the Lord’s will than the meanmindedness o’ them that act as if what they think must be what He thinks.” I couldn’t help laughing in agreement when he says a bit later, “I told ye the Kirk could provide subjects in plenty for the likes o’ me.”

Born into poverty and wrenched by it all his short life, Burns also takes to task the hypocrisy and oppressiveness of the wealthy, and yet he bears his own share of falseness when it comes to wealth–criticizing it while longing to partake of its ease. This is never so evident during the four years the novel spans as when he is manipulatively courting Mrs. MacLehose, hoping to inveigle himself into a life of affluence and influence through her.

His dalliance with Mrs. MacLehose brings me to the subject of Burns' womanizing, which I was never aware of until reading The Witching Voice. Johnston offers a more balanced view of Burns than I might otherwise be inclined to take. Burns is credited with being the father of various numbers of children born out of wedlock: twelve or fourteen are mentions I have seen. That might have led me to view him as a conscienceless philanderer except for a few mitigating factors. In his irresponsibility, he acted responsibly by financially supporting his children. And in the novel he is delighted with the birth of each barn. I was most struck, however, by what seem to be Burns’ genuine feelings for all the women but Mrs. MacLehose. And his protestations at times to the contrary, he is concerned over what others think of him and his relationships. He clearly cares most deeply for Jean Armour and feels injured by her father’s low opinion of him while scarcely knowing him. Also, after saying he would brave any trials to be with Jean, “Robert realizes he is touched by Jean’s beauty and her soft straightforward manner in a way that seems fresh, beyond the hyperbole of such courting declarations.” The honesty in that makes me wonder about my own stereotypes of what I (and many others) have considered a womanizer. I found myself asking, “Do womanizers suffer in their love-making? Do they truly and deeply love, not simply exploit? Do they hurt when love is lost? It is Johnston’s nuanced portrayal of Burns that forces me to probe my own assumptions.

I relished Johnston’s depiction of Burns as a writer with delight. Burns calls himself a scribbler, and in The Witching Voice we see the day-to-day life of the scribbler—Rab begging a scrap of paper and a pencil of the publican or sitting down on a rock by the field to dash off words when the witching voice assails him. The compulsion takes hold of Burns in a lower class tavern one night, and he tells his friend that the customers there want the same things they want, “’The only difference is, we worry about a’ the rest o’ it. The Kirk, the Crown, the courts, the seed and the harvest, the clink o’ gowd and siller. But them’—he flings his arm in an arc around him—“‘they don’t care a fig for ony o’ that.’ …And he knows he will write about this evening…”

It is the poets I know that are overtaken this way in the moment—less so the writers of prose. It isn’t that we prose writers are not also moved by life and some inner fire to write, even seized by it at times, but, at least for me, the process is generally more methodical. I’ve coached a magnificent poet before, who wanted to write a memoir. She found establishing a daily discipline to be so different, and also difficult, from how she came to poetry—or rather how poetry came to her.

I loved seeing how bits of daily life inspired Burns’ poems—none more than a long-time favorite of mine, “Holy Willie.” We are treated to that particular Willie, an elder in the Kirk, one who spies on others’ immorality and reports back to the preacher throughout the novel. Holy Willie gets his comeuppance in this story when Burns recites “Holy Willie” sans title when Willie joins a company of revelers in a tavern. At first Willie nods with pleasure at the description of an overweening righteous man. He begins to squirm as the man’s self-righteousness becomes apparent. He becomes apoplectic when he recognizes himself and his own sexual proclivities, which he believed were secret. I couldn’t help rejoicing in this laying-bare of Holy Willie.

As a writer, I identified powerfully with the vagaries of the publishing world that seem to have been little different in Robert Burns’ day from how they are now. A wealthy supporter introduced Burns to a well-known publisher in Edinburgh, and negotiations, which would be entirely predictable now, focused even then on marketability. Mr. Creech suggested that since Burns had sold out a printing of 600 in a month, he had likely already saturated the market. Later, as he is checking a proof sheet, Robert finds that “the narrow lines of verse keep suggesting to him the columns of figures in a ledger.” He asks himself, “Why should commerce keep intruding on the precincts of art?” And I think to myself, “There’s not a writer alive today who doesn’t still ask themselves that same question.”

Still and all, it is Burns’ exposure of false righteousness that endears him to so many, that makes me say under my breath, all too often of myself, “Oh wad a Pow’r the Giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!”

© Anna Redsand All Rights Reserved
Post a comment